Beauty that has become Battleground

Col J P Singh
Pangong Tso, the mysterious name, if one lives in India, may not be unaware of, courtsey China, because of recent incursions by the PLA in Ladakh. The mysterious name is of a trans-border mini-ocean of Himalayas. It should have been most familiar name atleast in each Dogra household especially amongst those who have links with Indian army. Since the last two centuries it has charmed Dogras spellbound. Dogra rulers and their military commanders had developed liking for it. Chinese are also getting more passionate about the majestic Lake. Thus PLA is still firm footed on the encroached lake despite having pulled out elsewhere. Many would have seen this enchanting mini-ocean; more may see it in the near future, if China relents and some may not in their life time. But those who have seen Rajkumar Hirani’s blockbuster ‘3 Idiots’, will remember Pangong Tso in Kareena Kapoor meets Amir Khan scene. This scene is at a place called Lukung. After this the lake has become a star attraction and Chinoo-Minoo’s love’s-labour’s-lost. Therefore those who have seen the movie have not missed serenity and scenic beauty of the picturesque Lake. They would have noted its most notable smiles, contours, colours, shade and texture. Those who have not seen the lake, embraced by no less than mighty Himalayas and are young and adventurist, I am sure will mark it as dream destination with their better half or girl/boy friend once in life. The dream destination is open to tourists in summers from May to September. Its beauty and serenity is to be seen to be believed. But make sure that it is not closed because of fire spitting Dragon.
Word Pangong Tso is derived from Tibetan word ‘Bangong Cuo’ meaning a long, narrow, deep and enchanting Lake. It is situated 54 kms South-east of Leh at an altitude of 14,270 ft (4,350 m). It is 135 kms long and 5 kms wide at the broadest point covering total area of 604 sq kms. Pangong Tso is a land locked lake. Earlier it had an outlet to Shyok River, a tributary of Indus which the nature blcoked one day. It is largest salt water lake of Asia. People ask why it is salty. The answer could be; it must have deatched from an Ocean. The bitter winds blowing over the brackish water render it coldest in the world. During the winters, the lake freezes completely and provides ideal grounds for Ice Skating, Polo and Ice Hockey. Gen Zorawar Singh, legendary Dogra warrior, is said to have trained his soldiers and horses on the frozen lake before Tibet invasion and played polo on the frozen surface. Today 1/3rd lake is in India, remaining 2/3rd of Tibet in Chinese control. Majority of streams which fill the lake come from Tibetan side. It is approximately 4 hours drive from Leh, the capital town of Ladakh UT. There are two entry points to the Lake. One is at Lukung and the other is at Chushul. (Chushul is otherwise also famous as 1962 battlefield). Lukung is Indian side end of the Lake whereas Chushul is the LAC side of Pangong Tso in Ladakh. Route from Leh to Lake passes over 5289 mtr height Chang-La (Chang-la pass), third highest motorable mountain pass in the world where every passerby is greeted with hot cup of tea and pakoras by the army camp. From Chang-La, road winds down to Darbuk and Tangste villages & military camps. (I joined my unit at Tangste in June 1971). Tangste is located on the banks of a river called Pagal Naala’ (crazy stream). From Tangste one goes to the lake tourist spot at Lukung either via Darbuk or via Chushhul (longer route). To reach Lukung from Chushul side one skirts the LAC at Chushul and travels under Chinese observation entire 45 kms of lake side route that is Indian. This route makes the journey exciting and adventurous.
Lake fully freezes during the winters and being saline, does not have any aquatic life or vegetation except few small water creatures. However one sees variety of migratory birds like Brahmani Ducks, Black-necked Cranes and sea and water birds for whom it acts as a fertile breeding ground. The sunrise and the sunset scenes at its banks are photographers delight which attracts them to the lake again and again. For them and visitors stay, an adventure camp exists at Lukung. The marshes on its shore have grass and species of scrub. Perennial herbs grow abundantly which provides grazing ground to the local livestock and support wild life including Marmot, Kiang, Rabbits and Chikoors.
Strategically Pangong Tso is an important water body. Due to its proximity to the LAC, tourists were not allowed there till 1999. On 20th October 1962, Chinese attacked Ladakh sector. In Pangong Tso military action Maj Dhian Singh Thapa of Gorkha Regt and Maj Shaitan Singh of Kumaon Regt got Param Vir Chakras fighting in Chushul battlefiields. Maj Thapa’s company fought for the defence of Chushul Airfield to the last man last round on 20th Oct. He was captured and taken prisoner. Maj Shaitan Singh’s company defended Razangla till 18 November 1962 and fought last man to last round. Only two or three men lived to tell the heroic tales of the fallen heroes. But today it is a different story altogether. After Amir Khan showed world what a heavenly lake is, hordes of tourists with their colourful caravans, tents and vehicles flock ashore the lake over 7 kms stretch from Lukung to Spangmik. Tourists are allowed to visit only up to village Spangmik after obtaining permission from Dy Commissioner Leh. Bollywood film makers have captured the beautiful landscape of Ladakh in several Hindi pictures. Before 3 Idiots, 1962 war movie ‘Haqeeqat’, war movie ‘Lakshya’ and Rakesh Mehra’s ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’ were shot in Nubra valley Ladakh. Boating is also allowed in the lake.
Even now Pangong Tso is one of the border flash points between India and China. The area under contention is a 5 km stretch of the Lake which both sides lay claim to. In 1999, an army unit from Lukung was moved to Kargil for ‘Op Vijay’. Taking advantage of thinning out of troops, Chinese built a 5 km road into the Indian territory along the Lake shore. (we should also exploit Chinese vulnerabilities due to Wuhan Virus pandemic). That road was patrolled by both sides to mark their presence but would avoid physical contact on the disputed track. Both sides carry out boat patrolling inside the lake. Indians cover 45 kms while the Chinese patrols cover 90 kms with an understanding that if both sides come face to face, they raise the flags, say Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai and return. China has built up a strong Army and Naval force on the Lake. Numerical superiority and tactical advantage is in favour of China but the chances of conflict are still rare despite aggressive incursions. Yet the Indian soldiers have to be very vigilant and alert because in case of war, the lake will provide China a faster induction route for a larger force for the capture of Leh. Until the border dispute is resolved, which is unlikely, India will have to position Naval Frigates to face PLA Navy in the lake. ‘Mission Victory India’, a team of seasoned Veterans, is working out tactical rules for the military leadership to demolish ‘Sun Tzu’ doctrine of PLA in Pangong Tso.
My encounter with Pangong Tso was in July 1971. I was sent on a ‘long range patrol’ to Ane La, a mountain pass on the Eastern periphery of LAC in Ladakh to observe and report Chinese build up across the LAC at a place called Rima which was their Regimental (brigade) location. We camped on the Lake shore near Finger 4. One day, a flock of Black-neck Cranes came flying near our camp. I shot one of them and dived in the blue icy water. When neared, the wounded bird pounced at me. Somehow I could catch it from the neck and lug it ashore. The very thought of what I went through in those 10 minutes scares even today. Having lived, I thought of writing story of this adventure as “Me and the Beast in Pangong Tso” but 1971 War and subsequent exigencies of service came in the way. But I continued my tryst with the enchanting lake. I look forward to one more encounter with this enchanting beauty in the remaining years of life. Hope other adventurists, young lovers and nature lovers enjoy a date with her majesty.